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Untethered...Reflections on Kansas City

Losing faith is not the same as losing belief, but it can break the fragile tether between a person and her innocence just the same. -- Alexandra Fuller

In 1971, the Ford Motor Company released the Ford Pinto, a subcompact car that was quickly developed and rushed to market to counter the strong competition from Volkswagen. Designed to be light weight and inexpensive, the car was well received and made a tidy profit for the company. But there was a problem with the design. The car’s gas tank was prone to rupture and explode when hit from behind, a feature that caused some 180 horrible deaths per year.

It eventually came out that Ford executives knew all along that the car was flawed and did not meet safety standards. But the company had done a cost-benefit analysis, which showed that the payouts from potential law suits associated with the flaw would be considerably less than the estimated $11 dollar per car that it would cost in order to avoid the deaths in the first place. The executives made a decision: profits were more important than lives; the larger interests of the company took precedence over the pain and loss of individual families.

I thought about the Ford Pinto as I read the Executive Board Resolution that was brought before the delegate body at Kansas City. It was quite obvious to me that the Executive Board had conducted its own cost-benefit analyses and made a cool and calculated decision: lgbtq lives were expendable; the survival of the institution took precedence over the well being of lgbtq people and our families.

Thanks to the adroit and frenzied politicking by the MCUSA Executive and the Moderator as they barnstormed the Conferences, the Executive Board resolution passed. It was, in a very real sense, a generational victory; the trump of the status quo, the savvy of a seasoned executive and board protecting the documents that their generation had written and embraced. Those who dared to name ourselves as lgbtq, as well as those who might have the audacity to support us, have been carefully put into our proper place once again. It was a crude reenactment of the 2001 merger, with old threats and condemnations restated, a vague new mechanism for discipline added, and a moratorium imposed.

But make no mistake. This was hardly a glorious victory, and certainly not a smart one. For what was sacrificed in this triumph was the faith of a multitude of young adults in the institution that is MCUSA, a brokenness that will most certainly never be restored to any semblance of its prior wholeness.

The memory of Kansas City that I most take with me is the Pink Menno witness following the resolution vote. Dozens of people, most of them young adults in pink, stood stoic and silent in the hallway, arranged to be an obstacle to the easy flow of MCUSA delegates as they made their way from the delegate session. The mood was intense, confrontational, and somber. Several of the delegates were openly sobbing. Others reached out to clasp the young adults with whispers of apology and grief. Many seemed shell shocked and shamefully looked at the floor, or crept to the side, or sought another exit. A few strode forcefully through the human maze, heads up and defiant, pretending that the shoulders they bumped were not actually there as they bullied their way through.

I felt a deep sense of love and admiration for the young adults and their allies as they stood courageously there, forcing the delegates to reckon with the human impact of their decision. But as I joined the witness, I also felt a profound sense of sadness. For in the silence, I could hear the snapping of ties that had intimately connected many of these young adults with the Mennonite Church. The tethers that had kept them trusting, hopeful and engaged were fraying and breaking right there in the hallway. This is the sound, I thought, that innocence makes as it is irretrievably broken. Settling into its place was a hardness, mistrust, sorrow, and for some, a seeping and deepening anger.

As I stood in that hallway I hardly knew whether to laugh or cry at the obvious, obscene irony. The next evening included a Service of Lament to ritually address the multitude of ways that the church had been complicit in furthering the suffering of women and their families who had been victims of John Howard Yoder. Violence that great, with so many victims, requires the careful acquiesce and consent of supporting institutions. Time and time again individuals in positions of power opted to protect Mennonite church institutions over and against the well-being and dignity of women.

Yet even as the church was beating its breast in lament, it was simultaneously opting for the same tactics of institutional protection, expending yet another group of vulnerable people. Sexualized violence carves a deep path in the Mennonite Church.

We now find ourselves in that perio​d of awkwardness and embarrassed silence that often follows an aggressive eruption of bad behavior and harsh decisions. It remains to be seen how the institution will position and conduct itself, especially now that its gamble, that conservative congregations would stay, is being shattered.

The great prophet of our times, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had it right: “One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right when the head is totally wrong. “ Denominational leaders are learning what the Ford Motor Company also learned: it might take time, but the callous disregard of the dignity and worth of human lives can have consequences far beyond what was imagined at the time. In this case, the cool calcula​tions of the Executive Board have probably cost them the hearts, imaginations and loyalty of a sensitive and passionate generation of young adults.

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